NTSB: Amtrak train was going 78 mph at impact; crew not using electronic devices

Crews work to remove a damaged Amtrak train, Wednesday, Dec. 20, 2017. (KOMO)

WASHINGTON, D.C. (KOMO) - An initial review of the data recorders and cameras on board the Amtrak train that derailed in DuPont, Washington, on Monday suggests the train was going 78 mph in the moments before impact -- nearly 50 miles over the speed limit at that location -- and that the crew realized the speed was too high moments before, the NTSB announced Friday.

Among the preliminary review, investigators concluded that the crew was not observed to be using any electronic devices before the crash, and that six seconds before impact, the engineer made a comment about going too fast.

Investigators say the engineer's actions were "consistent with the application of the locomotive’s brakes just before the recording ended. It did not appear the engineer placed the brake handle in emergency-braking mode."

The recording ended as the train was tilting and the crew was bracing for impact.

MORE | 6 victims in train derailment plan to sue Amtrak | Amtrak didn't wait for system that could've prevented wreck

Train 501 derailed as it hit a curve where the speed limit was 30 mph and careened onto the southbound lanes of I-5, killing three on the train and injuring dozens of others. Five vehicles and two semi trucks were struck by the falling train cars on I-5 causing injuries, but no fatalities on the freeway.

Amtrak said crash-prevention technology known as Positive Train Control (PTC) -- the technology that can slow or stop a speeding train -- was not activated in that area before the crash. The crash happened on the inaugural run of passenger train service along that corridor, which was designed to allow high-speed service and cut 15 minutes off the trip from Seattle to Portland. Passenger trains will not use that route again until PTC has been activated, Washington State Department of Transportation officials said Thursday.

NTSB officials say the information released Friday is preliminary and the entire investigation is expected to last between 12 and 24 months.

John Hiatt, a former engineer with BNSF and now investigates accidents for a law firm that has sued Amtrak, doesn't blame the engineer. Hiatt says the engineer has more than 10 years of experience.

"Never in my railroad career have I seen anybody more set up for failure', he said. He noted that all the training the engineer received was at night.

The speed of the train indicated to him that " he thought they were somewhere else. They had lost track of where they were."

The engineer's visual actions were consistent with hitting the brakes before the recording ended, the NTSB said. But the engineers did not appear to place the brake handle in the emergency braking mode.

"There's only one reason, " Hiatt said. "He didn't have time. When he realized where he was at, the emergency brakes weren't going to help him any."

In other developments, the state Transportation Department is denying a Wall Street Journal report that the state had the chance to straighten the curve where the derailment occurred but didn't to save money.

The state says the 2006 idea to rebuild the curve was jut for planning purposes.

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